Last week, Emily Bell wrote a column in The Guardian examining the diversity (or lack thereof) in the hiring at high-profile digital startups like Vox, FiveThirtyEight and the First Look verticals. She noted that in setting off on their own to build new visions of what the industry could be, the likes of Ezra Klein and Nate Silver were just repackaging a lot of the same problems that have plagued our industry for years in terms of adequate newsroom representation of women and journalists of color.
“Remaking journalism in its own image, only with better hair and tighter clothes, is not a revolution, or even an evolution, ” Bell wrote. “It is a repackaging of the status quo with a very nice clubhouse attached. A revolution calls for a regime change of more significant depth.”
Predictably, there was backlash. In the comments on her story, many many men responded with some variety of the following:
“I only hire for capability, not diversity.”
“If you are good enough, you’ll get hired. Stop asking for special favors.”
Something something something “war on white men.”
In a piece a few days later in New York Magazine, Nate Silver remarked that it is difficult to hire women.
About 85 percent of our applications come in from men. That worries us. At the same time, we’re hiring the best candidate for the position. But that’s one of the reasons why we take a long time and put a lot of effort into our hiring process, to make sure that we’re looking widely for the best possible candidates.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with white males (some of my best friends are white men!), but there is something wrong with the statement “we only hire the best candidates” because I can bet that some of the best candidates didn’t even get a chance to apply for most jobs out there, especially at these new media startups.
Hiring managers don’t (usually) intentionally hire people like themselves. It happens because hiring so rarely happens the way many people think it does. Most people assume it works like so:
1. Job is posted
2. Job seeker sees job post on Twitter, on a jobs site, in an email from a friend, etc..
3. Job seeker applies with a résumé and cover letter to the designated means of collecting these materials.
4. Hiring manager or an HR representative combs through résumés to weed out the disqualified. They set aside really good cover letters to note people to interview.
6. Best applicant gets the job.
That isn’t what actually happens – at least, not in our industry (nor many others). From my experience as a person who has hired and who has been hired, this is a bit more like how it happens:
1. Job is created or opened.
2. Hiring manager informs his/her networks about said job, asking for recommendations of qualified candidates.
3. Qualified, recommended candidates surface. Many of them were not even actively looking for a new job, but the opportunity is too good to pass up.
4. Phone calls, coffees and interviews with recommended candidates commence.
5. Job is posted to basic jobs site (because HR requires it).
6. Résumés coming in via that job site are ignored or, at best, are skimmed.
7. A recommended candidate from step #3 is hired.
Simply put, if you aren’t plugged in to the first few degrees of the hiring manager’s network, good luck.
Shani O. Hilton, who wrote the best and most useful followup to Bell’s post, also noted the problem of the network.
The network — on both ends of the equation — is the problem. The journos of color and women aren’t networking with white dudes doing the hiring because it isn’t in their DNA. Call it the Twice as Hard Half as Good Paradox: Many of us are so busy working twice as hard and hoping to get noticed that we don’t do the networking that seems like bullshit but is actually a key part of career advancement.
I would also argue that one’s geography and background can also be a problem in seeking work because of the importance of the network. You don’t see a lot of journalists from the heartland getting hired on the coasts – even if they offer to pay to move themselves.
I went through this myself as a youngish journalist working in Cincinnati, OH. I applied to dozens of jobs at news organizations on the coasts, high profile places with alleged job openings for web producers and social media editors. I more than met the requirements for the jobs, but I never even got as much as a phone call or email. I’d follow up via research to see if I could find who had been hired – it was almost universally someone already from the area, usually with some connection to the publication. It could be that I wasn’t a very good candidate (likely), but it could also be that I just wasn’t in the right networks (also likely).
It wasn’t until I applied for a job where I had a connection I had made via social media that I got that call back – and ultimately got the job (at TBD back in 2010, via Steve Buttry). Since then, I have not acquired a job the traditional way – which inevitably makes me worry I actually wasn’t the best person for the job, I was just the easiest to find.
While Hilton offers some great advice for both job seekers and hiring managers to get past the networking problem, I offer one simple tip: Actually post your open jobs. Earth-shattering, I know.
Post your jobs early on and spread them to your social networks, your real-life networks and email lists for organizations like ONA, NABJ, AAJA, NAHJ, JAWS and many more journalism organizations. Treat the process earnestly. You never know who might be quietly looking for work that you know…and more importantly, you never know who you don’t know that might be perfect for your job and they just need to hear about it.
I pride myself and my current organization (Thunderdome) for hiring beyond our own networks. Many of our employees came our way through career fairs and online applications – including a few non-journalists who happened to bring different experiences into our newsroom. We’d never have found one another if we hadn’t posted our jobs.
So post the job. When you say you are an equal opportunity employer, actually mean it. If qualified women and journalists of color don’t know about your job, they can’t apply. That isn’t an equal opportunity.
More: Benet Wilson and Tracie Powell at NABJ offer advice for building a more inclusive network.
We struggled at first in bringing more diversity to our news staff at Digital First in Connecticut. But after a few victories, gained simply by asking a lot of people for help, it got easier and easier to find minority candidates – because we had expanded our network.
Exactly right, Matt. We have to get out of our networking comfort zones for hiring staff, or else we’re just going to be bringing in the usual suspects every time.
Mandy: thanks for this piece, and including our post on building a more inclusive network!
Thank you for sharing such great tips!
Worrying about the best – both from the hiring perspective and as a candidate (your worry you’re not necessarily the best but just the most prominent) is a monumental waste of time. There’s one person on the planet who is the “best” at thing XYZ and s/he is the only person who will hold that position. If we’re ill should we be disappointed that we get the 2nd best surgeon in the world? In the country? City? County? Hospital?
Someone is always better, particularly if you define the criteria narrowly enough. Which is what it certainly seems like these sorts of operations are doing. After all, Ambrosino visibly sucks in a number of ways yet somehow he’s got that gig. Is his potential (which I do not dispute) to become a great writer/reporter really a sign that he’s the Best? Rather than someone who will have a perspective or insight into cultures pasty-faced readers with mismatched chromosomes me could benefit from?
Best as position is crappy thinking. It’s what gets you meaningless assertions from companies that they only hire from the top 10%. Best as an aspiration and effort is what has meaning, and I’d say that hiring nothing but white dudes doesn’t qualify.
Right on, Don.
I try to hire for attitude and personality just as much as skills and experience – and that makes all the difference as to the kind of employee you are going to get. “Best” is relative.
As someone who has been in a digital newsroom for many years now whose subject terrain crosses paths with at least some parts of these new ventures, making them competitors, I’ve been curious about how these job openings are being presented and how the staffs are being assembled. So, I’ve been looking for their job postings and have found none on any of the journalism jobs sites and other likely places. At first, I thought I must just have missed them (certainly, at least some have been posted?), but then I began to wonder along the same lines as expressed here, whether these ventures are being developed via existing networks, which means they are going to have the same issues as “old” media when it comes to whom they hire and why.
But I also think there’s something to be said from the prospective employee side of the equation. Granted, there are many people looking for work, but for some of us who aren’t necessarily looking for a new job but might find these sorts of ventures of interest – and have the qualifications to work for them – I think it’s the case that our experiences lead us to hesitate to even toss our hats into some of these rings. It’s not only that these are startup ventures without a track record yet, however interesting they are and however well-known the big-name hires; having been among the first women sportswriters sent into locker rooms to break through that barrier, I quickly came to realize the enormous downsides to being in that sort of situation. However much progress has been made, it’s still difficult to actually be the one to break through. For all the rest of my career, having left sportswriting long ago, I have weighed whether that’s the sort of environment I would want to be in again. It wasn’t just the sexism and such, it was as much as anything the enormous pressure and the expectations placed on me, which were entirely out of whack with the situation.
And while there’s obvious girth behind Fivethirtyeight and other of these startups, it seemed to be that way for Patch too, for instance. But I sure am glad that I never bit when they tried to recruit me to work for them.